TORONTO -- The Red Sox' biggest free agent acquisitions of the offseason haven't done much so far, which makes this 21-10 start even more remarkable and emphasizes what dominant pitching -- like Josh Beckett's seventh win last night, a 9-2 decision over the Blue Jays -- can mean to a team.
Daisuke Matsuzaka has been mediocre at best for the $51.111 million posting fee and the six-year, $52 million salary.
Julio Lugo went 2 for 5 last night, but he is 3 for his last 20 and 13 for his last 76. His .229 average is not indicative of a player earning $9 million per year. J.D Drew is hitting a so-so .255 with 2 homers and 11 RBIs, with just four hits in his last 40 at-bats. He's a $15 million-a-year player.
But somehow the parts have blended together and produced the best record in the American League. And really, that's all that matters.
The 10 or so scouts who watched Beckett recover from a tough start last night -- a home run by Alex Rios on the first pitch and a double by Adam Lind right afterward -- drooled over Beckett's talent.
"Boy, he really recovered," said a veteran scout. "That was so impressive. He's a bulldog. Once he had that big lead, he wasn't going to be denied. He finished off the job. He's the best pitcher in our league right now. And I wouldn't have said that about him last year."
Nobody would have.
With all due respect to Curt Schilling's fine start, Beckett is the team's top starter.
He's made the mechanical adjustment of moving his plant foot from the first base side of the rubber more toward the third base side, which has given him control of his breaking pitch and changeup. He's no longer worried -- consciously or subconsciously -- about the blisters he had in Florida since the Red Sox diagnosed and treated the eczema that ac companies the problem.
He's always had great stuff, but this is big-time-pitcher territory we're heading into.
"Filthy stuff," said a scout. "Absolutely filthy."
Last night, three-run homers by Dustin Pedroia and Mike Lowell and solo shots by Jason Varitek and Kevin Youkilis gave Beckett more offense than he needed. Sometimes pitchers relax with a big lead, but Beckett was like a boxer with a head of steam trying his best to finish off the opponent.
The offense certainly loves it when Beckett starts. The Sox have scored 55 runs in his seven starts -- almost eight runs per game -- but he hasn't needed them all. Beckett has allowed three runs or fewer in six of the seven starts, one run in four starts, and the only time he was "roughed up" came when he allowed four runs to the Yankees April 21.
The impressive thing about his most recent win is that a night that didn't start his way surely ended that way.
"Any time someone hits the first pitch of the day for a home run, you tip your cap to them and move on," said Beckett. "Youk hit a big home run and it's tied up, 0-0, again."
Beckett is appreciative of the run support.
"It's always nicer to have a huge cushion like that," he said. "It's one of those things I can't control, so I don't worry about it. That's the least of my worries.
"When you have a bigger lead, you're probably throwing more fastballs and trying to get ahead on the count, but you can't forget about your secondary stuff. Tek did a good job with that today."
Some of the Blue Jays talked about Beckett being more confident with his offspeed pitches. While last season hitters could sit on his fastball and lay off the offspeed stuff, "He's throwing those pitches for strikes, so you have to be more aggressive with him at the plate," said Lyle Overbay.
"It was a bad time to face Josh Beckett," said Frank Thomas, who fanned in the first inning. "He was rolling and dealing. I've got no excuses. He stuck it [to me] with a great breaking ball and a two-seamer that was running all over the place."
"It looks like he's locked in," said Vernon Wells.
Rios's homer was something you saw a lot of last year, when Beckett allowed 36 bombs; he's surrendered only two in his first seven starts this year.
Beckett didn't seem to care for questioning about that, but facts are facts. He's leaving fewer pitches up in the zone, and because he's mixing his pitches, hitters aren't sitting on his fastball. He's a pitcher, not a thrower.
"We get paid to win ballgames," Beckett said. "If I give up four home runs in a game and we win, we're happy."
He also feels the in-house competition among him, Schilling, and Tim Wakefield has been good for everyone. One pitcher is feeding off the other (though it remains to be seen whether Matsuzaka gets over his one-inning problems tonight).
"I would say, yeah, there's a friendly competition going on right now," Beckett said. "Wake is pitching great, Schill's pitching great. Everything's firing together.
"Even [Julian] Tavarez. I was so impressed with how he did in Minnesota. Ground-ball pitcher pitching on the turf with a good-hitting team. It's really nice to be a part of something like that."
Beckett is leading a starting rotation that's saving the day. The old guard is playing winning baseball, while the new guard tries to hold up the weight of its enormous salaries.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com